Before its conversion in 1996, No 4 Raja Street in Ramallah was best known as the former family home of Khalil Salem Salah, the man who served as mayor of the Palestinian town between 1947 and 1951.
Now the stone mansion, renamed the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, has opened its doors to an international five-day symposium. Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past opened on Thursday, the third of four off-site events for the Sharjah Biennial 13: Tamawuj, curated by Christine Tohmé. It features lectures by academics, performances from artists such as Laurence Abu Hamdan, and the launch of nine artists’ books.
Jordanian artist Abu Hamdan opened the event with his audio essay Bird Watching – an acoustic investigation into the regime at Saydnaya prison in Syria, where torture and mass executions have taken place, using the testimonies of ex-prisoners .
Following similar off-sites in Dakar, Senegal, in January and Istanbul, Turkey, in May, which addressed themes using the keywords ‘water’ and ‘crops’, curator Lara Khaldi explains Shifting Ground’s relevance to Ramallah, the West Bank in Palestine.
“‘Earth’ was assigned to Ramallah and that’s quite a difficult key word to deal with because it’s so fraught, and perhaps it’s already been overtly romanticised in relation to Palestinians,” says Khaldi, who aimed to tackle the issue in a different way.
“The relationship with earth is romanticised here because in order to be indigenous you need to prove a link to the land and to nature,” she says.
The former assistant director for programmes at the Sharjah Art Foundation adds: “It’s something that happens in many communities. In order to prove your right to the land, you have to become part of nature. So quite contrary to what should happen, our relationship with the land and the land itself becomes symbolic, not material, which is a problem.”
Rather than simply mounting an exhibition, Khaldi was drawn to the idea of a symposium and publications in part, she says, because of the freedom afforded to her by the Biennial and also as a way to bring the region’s art and academic communities together in conversation.
“The idea came out of the research around the keywords but there are many artists in Palestine doing research-based work and the form of the artist’s publication hasn’t really been explored here,” says Khaldi, who is also a former director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre.
“We’re producing 500 copies of each publication, which means that there is the potential for each of those to end up in the hands of someone you do not know and who isn’t part of the usual audience that comes to an exhibition.”
The artist publications are by Noor Abuarafeh, Benji Boyadgian, Ma’touq, Nicola Perugini, Samir Harb and Mimi Cabell, Yara Saqfalhait, Subversive Film (Reem Shilleh & Mohanad Yaqubi) and The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind.
The symposium itself has been organised around issues relating to subterranean sites such as cemeteries, to earth as a medium and the challenging conceptual issue of Palestinian museums.
Papers such as Suhad Daher Nashif’s Secret Cemeteries of Numbers: Imprisoning Palestinian Corpses in Buried Historical Archives, which discusses the incarceration of the bodies of Palestinians by Israeli forces – sometimes for decades – not only speak to the extreme nature of the issues that confront people in the Occupied Territories but also to Khaldi’s determination to make the symposium relevant to her audience.
“It’s important to talk about what’s happening on the ground on both a symbolic level as well as on an imperialist level,” she says.
“Jerusalem families have been smuggling corpses out of hospitals in order to bury them before the Israeli military can keep the corpse.”
In the context of the Occupied Territories, Khaldi explains, issues relating to the earth, to burial, to death and to museums have a way of mutating so that they are charged with different meanings to the ones that they may have elsewhere.
“It’s a contradiction, but by burying something you allow it to continue and to live, whereas in a museum, it congeals, and once you exhibit something, you kill its vitality,” she says.
“So what model of a museum should we follow? The museums that are being built follow a model which doesn’t really work here. It’s such a particular situation, that the wheel has to be reinvented.”
That needs to develop a new language, not just of representing reality but of seeing and understanding it, is something that emerges time and time again in the papers and publications that have emerged from Shifting Ground.
“Images of the apartheid wall, for example, are always on TV, but that doesn’t answer the question of how you represent it, that’s a completely different question, and that’s something that’s very much on the minds of our generation,” says Khaldi.
“It’s hard to represent these images that have also become so mundane, so what form do you choose to talk about these issues? How do you present that to the world?”
Nowhere is this attempt at a new language more evident than in the work of 29-year-old Inas Halabi whose project, Lions Warn of Futures Present, has also resulted in one of the publications launched at the symposium on Thursday.
Based on her investigations of stories that circulate about Israel’s dumping of chemical and nuclear waste in the West Bank, Halabi’s five-part publication and photographs attempt to capture and represent the largely invisible and ungraspable threat of radiation and its effect, both physical and psychological, on local communities.
“How do you create a feeling of something that’s disturbing or haunting in a publication or an image?” Halabi asks me, speaking from Ramallah.
By investigating a potential disaster that might already have arrived, Lions Warn of Futures Present not only attempts to investigate objects and substances that have been buried but stories and memories as well.
Halabi does this using a series of narratives that blend the results of real-life scientific investigations by local doctors and physicists with rumours and stories that, regardless of their status, operate on a mythic level that has tangible consequences, despite an absence of verifiable facts.
“A rumour has no colour and can’t be seen, but it spreads faster than fire underneath your own two feet,” Halabi writes in The Belgian Journalists, one of the five pamphlets that comprise Lions Warn of Futures Present.
In another, Near the Caves Lies a Peach Orchard, the artist goes in search of mysterious, man-made rock formations and concrete-sealed caves that are rumoured to contain hazardous waste, while in The Red Book, Halabi lists readings of highly radioactive Caesium-137 that have been recorded by an academic in villages south of Hebron.
A deadly hazard that is now associated with nuclear disasters,Caesium-137 does not occur in nature but is associated with spent nuclear fuel, weapons and lethal levels of contamination.
Like Halabi’s rumours, Caesium-137 is invisible, hugely damaging and highly mobile, and to try to render its presence, she places sheets of red plastic in front of her camera lens to change the colour of landscape photographs she takes, adding more sheets, systematically, in an attempt to quantify the level of radiation.
Halabi’s use of red in her photographs plays on our deep associations of the colour with danger and also refers to an episode from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in which local forests are reported to have turned red just before dying en masse.
In using a physical device to try to reveal the hidden secrets of the landscape south of Hebron, Halabi’s work also echoes the 18th-century fashion for the use of a special lens, know as a Claude glass, that once allowed aesthetically-inclined tourists to frame and comprehend the picturesque elements in any given landscape.
Rather than beauty, however, Halabi’s work encourages her audience to comprehend the horror that might be ingrained in the scenes she records, landscapes where inexplicable cancers and deformities are said to proliferate, where cattle and sheep die mysteriously in yellow fields and where strangely-coloured spring water brings death to migrating birds.
Halabi admits that she cannot be sure whether the tales of dumping and contamination she has gathered are true, but the narratives she has woven from her research are supported by footnotes and indexes, which act like geological strata, holding the facts and the figures she has gathered on the ground.
“I didn’t want to eliminate them completely from the work, which is why I kept the footnotes as evidence for things I haven’t tried to transform, she says.
“I think it’s very important to share that information. We share knowledge with others through storytelling, but a lot of times, even though something might be presented as fiction, it might still be about something in daily life that is very real.”
For Khaldi, the most valuable opportunity afforded by hosting the Biennial off-site in Ramallah is to engage with a wider audience while addressing her community’s concerns.
“With the scope of the project, it wasn’t ever meant to be like a Biennial where the international art scene descends because at some point in these events they become events that could work anywhere,” she says.
“So in a sense this is an attempt to see what might happen when you have a local conversation. That doesn’t mean that you alienate anyone coming from abroad, not at all, but it is about being more specific to a particular place.”
With its potent mix of politics and folklore, suffering and memory, landscape and death, the work presented at Shifting Ground certainly achieves that.
The effect is often harrowing, taking audiences from beyond the West Bank to a terrifying and extremely uncomfortable place, but that’s because this is a portrait of contemporary colonialism in action and the result of a subject – earth – that is bitterly contested.